Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Scansion for Intermediates


    If you were taught that "The Red Wheelbarrow", "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "We Real Cool" are free verse then you need to unlearn that and focus on what meter is and what it does, beginning with the first installment in this series:  "Scansion for Beginners".  If you were taught that Blake's "The Tiger" (i.e. "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright") is trochaic this series won't change your understanding of meter but it might begin it.

     Meter is merely repeated quantifications.  The things being counted can be, among others: 

  1. syllables (called "syllabic verse");


  2. accented syllables ("accentual verse");


  3. patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables ("accentual-syllabic verse") called "feet",


  4. alliterations ("alliterative verse");


  5. words ("leximetric verse"); and,


  6. tempos ("quantitative verse").

     In the last millenium, only accentual and accentual-syllabic verse have played significant roles in English prosody.  To be clear, meter has nothing to do with:

  1. Content:

         There is nothing--no subject, theme, conceit or point--that can be explored in prose, prose poetry or free verse but cannot be covered equally well in verse.  And vice versa.


  2. Rhymes:

         As is plain to anyone who has read Shakespeare's blank verse plays, it is wrong to describe verse as "rhyming poetry" like so many outside the poetry world do.  The presence of rhymes or rhyme schemes is no guarantor of meter.  That said, "without meter, rhymes risk sounding like random cymbal clangs over a spastic drunkard's drumming."


  3. Lines:

         English meter is about stichs (pronounced "sticks"), not lines.
Harriet Monroe

     That last one may surprise some but, as we'll discover, lines can be part of an illusion.  Let us look at a few commonly miscanned verses to see the difference between stichs and lines.

     A touchstone poem is T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"¹.  As you can see from Peter John Ross's famous, illuminating scansion (Appendix A), the verses are in four different measures, all iambic:  trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter (apparently too much pentameter--"too penty"--for Ezra Pound's taste!) and heptameter.  Thus, we see another example of heterometer, like "Amazing Grace" and "The Red Wheel Barrow" from the first article in this series.  Note the extra syllables at the beginnings ("anacrusis") of many of the lines .  These unstressed, insignificant connecting words (e.g. "Let", "When", etc.) are part of the line but not part of the meter.

Let | us go | then, you | and I,
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis)
When | the even|ing is | spread out | against | the sky
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Like | a pat|ient eth|erised | upon | a tab|le;
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Let | us go, |through cert|ain half-|desert|ed streets,
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
The mut|tering | retreats
        (iambic trimeter)

     For example, the third stich extends from after "Like" to before the final semisyllable, "-le".  The extra syllables contribute to the "rambling" effect that Harriet Munroe mentioned.

    Here is one of the many anacrusic iambic tetrameter lines:

In | the room | the wom|en come | and go   

    As as aside, note that treating it as headless ("acephalous") iambic pentameter isn't a significant change in a "het-met" (i.e. heterometrical) poem.

[x] In | the room | the wom|en come | and go
   
    Here is one of the "fourteeners" (i.e. iambic heptameter lines):

The yel|low fog | that rubs | its back | upon | the win|dow-panes,   

     Understanding stichs helps us recognize meter even when it is broken up into separate lines.  We saw this with "The Red Wheelbarrow" in the first installment where:

So much depends
upon


     ...and all the identical stanzas after it are actually just broken up accentual trimeter lines:

So much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.

     While the above is the first known curgina (i.e. verses broken up into "free verse" style lines), the first accentual-syllable curgina is the bacchic (i.e. de-DUM-DUM) monometric "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks.

We real cool. We
left school. We

lurk late. We
strike straight. We

sing sin. We
thin gin. We

jazz June. We
die soon.


      Remove the obvious curgination and we have:

We real cool.
We left school.

We lurk late.
We strike straight.

We sing sin.
We thin gin.

We jazz June.
We die soon.


     How do we know that the last two syllables in each stich are stressed?  By listening to the author recite it.



     There are few things more pointless than guessing and arguing about which syllables are being accented in a poem by a living author.  This is yet another reason why we should hear poetry instead of just reading it.

     Regular readers here are familiar with D.P. Kristalo's acrostic curgina, "Beans".  "Joie de Mourir" by the same author is a more standard use of the curginic approach:

Beyond this arid pit is life, lived
incognito. Dreams resist
our beckoning. Just coax the one
that's closest: I can see
my wife. A rose
corsage adorns her wrist; her iris
catches the voyeur sun.

I see her neckline, hem and slit
unfurl then gather like geese
in flight. At dusk we dance and turn
to tell the termagant wind
to end its fit. Two shadows
move at the speed of night
along the shadeless halls
of hell.


     Notice how many more meanings are afforded by these linebreaks.  Length variations make the speech more natural in the sense that few of us utter exactly 8 syllables between every breath.  Compare this to the decurginated version:

Beyond this arid pit is life,
lived incognito. Dreams resist
our beckoning. Just coax the one
that's closest: I can see my wife.

A rose corsage adorns her wrist;
her iris catches the voyeur sun.

I see her neckline, hem and slit
unfurl then gather like geese in flight.
At dusk we dance and turn to tell
the termagant wind to end its fit.

Two shadows move at the speed of night
along the shadeless halls of hell.


     Today, poets are finding new ways to present metrical poetry.  With practice, we'll be able to recognize stichs--verse--even if they come in "corata" (i.e. paragraphs), like "Shadows", without the need to have everything spelled out for us.  If we develop a truly uncanny ear we might even be able to discern the various rhythms and meters of a DATIA, something we will discuss in the final post of this series, "Scansion for Experts".








Footnotes:

¹  - Ironically, had "Prufrock" been free verse it might never have been published.  Ezra Pound convinced Poetry magazine editor Harriet Monroe that "Prufrock" wasn't the "rambling of an old man" by scanning it for her.  As one pundit remarked, with "Prufrock", T.S. Eliot eclipsed not only the ability of others to write verse but the capacity of many to read it.




Appendix A:

     Comments by Peter John Ross:

"Prufrock" isn't free verse. It's as far from free verse as anything written by Swinburne or the most elaborate troubadour. (Swinburne was the acknowledged expert on metre when "Prufrock" was written, and all the modernists had to read the troubadours because Pound wouldn't shut up about how good they were. In "Prufrock" Eliot equalled Swinburne, and might have impressed even Bertan de Born. And of course the non-metrical aspects of the poem surpass them both.)

Let us go then, you and I,
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis)
When the evening is spread out against the sky
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
The muttering retreats
        (iambic trimeter)
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
        (iambic pentameter)
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells;
        (iambic pentameter)
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Of insidious intent
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis)
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
        (iambic pentameter)
Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?'
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis)
Let us go and make our visit.
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis) 




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